Channeling Rexford Tugwell in an age of Pandemics

Meet Rexford Tugwell. He was in FDR’s iconic “Brain Trust,” a team of academics that helped his administration develop social and economic policy. As a specialist in national planning, Tugwell believed the government should use large, centralized plans to lift the economy out of the Great Depression. Private businesses were too frozen in place and too corrupt to get it done. 

Tugwell wanted a robust federal government making all the rules. He thought that national-planning should be administered from the most local level to the highest national decree. Experiments and science would serve as the foundation for this envisioned Socialist-esque system.

“[It’s] the kind of planning which is a familiar feature of contemporary business,” Tugwell wrote in the early 1930s. 

Under Tugwell’s vision, the best and brightest academic minds would serve as the architects of federal policy. The government should be run like a businessone whose profits are measured in the fruits of its citizens’ general welfare. 

So why does Rexford Tugwell matter right now?

He matters because there are COVID-19 cases in all 50 states. There are well over 140,000 infected Americans and close to 1 million infected globally. There are much more infected who we have not yet identified, so in reality, these numbers are multiple times higher. 

The outcome we know to be true: many people will die avoidable deaths because we will run out of the resources we need to fight this disease. Brave healthcare workers fight on the front lines, enduring a disaster that has the same intensity of biological warfare. Even with all their efforts, they are losing. We are all losing.

Tugwell’s plan for a science-driven federal policy was aimed to influence much more than simply how we respond to a pandemic. Tugwell thought things like our healthcare system, our economy and foreign relations could all be shaped by science. Tugwell’s plan relied on tedious experimentation, trial-and-error and most of all, patience. Citizens would not see a federally-built utopia overnight, but an eventual one. Perfection does not come right away.

Moving political bias to the side, is it not fair to say that if science, measurements and data could give us the objectively optimal answers to all of our policy questionswe should take them with open arms and simply move past the messy nature of politics?

Maybe, but that would surely cause quite a stir. 

So let’s just focus on the direst threat currently in front of usthe coronavirus. Unlike Tugwell’s original model, we don’t need to rely on slow experimentation at the public’s expense. We don’t need to wait for data. We know all we need to know to fight this battle in the most effective ways possible. Countries like China and South Korea have been where we are now just months agoit’s time to start better following their lead.

We have failed miserably. 

It is a fact of science that a unified national response under a data-driven and the scientifically-motivated federal government is our best shot at fighting the pandemic and stopping the loss of more life. We cannot rely on a haphazard state-by-state, city-by-city approach any longer. The Trump Administration has not done nothingbut they have done far from enough.

As we respond to the pandemic, we must cast politics to the side and bring science to the forefront. Epidemiology data, modeling and statistics must be codified into law.

Responding to a pandemic is an isolated challenge compared to structuring literally every other area of policy like Tugwell wanted. But the relevant science is not being used to its maximum potential.

Many leaders and workers have been utilizing science and reason as effective weapons in this war. But many have not, needlessly putting citizens and responders in danger. 

These are the leaders that we must stop.

“The traditional incentives, hope of money-making, and fear of money-loss, will be weakened; and a kind of civil-service loyalty and fervor will need to grow gradually into acceptance,” Tugwell explains.

Until this rings true for every man and woman we elect into office, people will keep suffering and science will continue to be ignored. Not only during this pandemic but in the pandemics and other global crises yet to come.